Shari Laster (a person)

After the Election: Libraries, Librarians, and the Government

(This post originally appeared on Free Government Information.)

Like many of my colleagues, I’m struggling to understand what the results of the Presidential election mean for my work as a government information librarian at a public institution of higher education. In the weeks and months ahead, those of us who claim to value diversity, inclusion, and a human-centered approach to our work have important choices to make about how we meaningfully live these values in our communities.

For those of us who work in educational institutions, the uptick in reported acts of hatred and bigotry in schools and on campuses around the United States is a call to local and national action. For those of us who work with government information, there are additional, compelling questions that we need to consider. How will the least transparent Presidential candidate in modern history, who as President-Elect has already begun to announce administrative appointments evidencing troubling stances with respect to fundamental rights and freedoms, lead his administration? How will changes in policy and political rhetoric be reflected in official public information products, and what will be obscured? What will be deleted or altered? What will — and what should — the documentary record of this political and social era reflect?

Yet in reflecting on these and other urgent questions, it is important to note how many of these considerations have long deserved meaningful discussion in the context of our work. Critical examination has been ongoing and present (if not as widespread as one might hope) within discourse among archivists, instruction librarians, YA librarians, digital humanities and digital collections librarians, metadata librarians, librarians who work with first-year students, those who work with underserved communities, and many more. Within the small, mission-driven community of librarians and advocates whose work engages with government information, there is a lack of discourse engaging with the why of our work, let alone the why now.

Anecdotally, some conversations lean on words like those of James Madison (“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”), without reflecting on the relationship between Madison’s political philosophy and his role in the proposal and adoption of the three-fifths compromise, or that he directly profited from chattel slavery. Other conversations refer to the right of the public to access and use information produced with taxpayer funds, an indirect nod to deeply embedded notions of capitalism that intersect with the prevailing interpretation of the First Amendment that money is a form of speech. Still others reference a broad, generalized right of the public to know, one that is precarious both in scope (who are the public? what can they know?) and in temporal orientation (is there a right to remember? does it intersect with a right to be unknown or forgotten?).

I want to propose that as part of engaging with how we should address these new challenges, our community should meet its obligation to examine why we do this work. Speaking as an individual within this community — not on behalf of the community, or GODORT, or FGI, or my place of work — it seems that we have long understood ourselves as a profession under siege. Government documents collections in print are being discarded, while few institutions are putting strategies in place for collecting government information in digital formats. These strategies are not expanding in tandem with the explosive proliferation of these sources, and certainly not in pace with the changing demands for access from public users, researchers, students, and more. Most of us do work that transcends traditional reference, collection management, and cataloging roles; yet despite this, we still care.

From that stance of care, both for the people who surround me and for the work I do, I want to ask questions like these: with respect to government information, what responsibilities do we have as a professional community? How can we work outside our own walls to meaningfully and inclusively move forward programs that shift the possibilities for access and use? These questions represent only a segment of the unexplored space, and none of us have definitive answers. Our ethical imperative is to open conversations with communities around us that articulate and suggest responses to these questions, and build our future work in ways that are responsive to these considerations.

My colleague Thomas Padilla has pointed me to the work of Shannon Mattern as one avenue for exploration. Mattern’s article “Public In/Formation” argues that we have the capacity to act as “…stewards of equity, discretion, interoperability, resilience, and respect for the past.” Our work extends beyond the capture of information to encompass thoughtful curation that enables people to transform data into knowledge. This thoughtfulness has never been needed more:

A would-be strongman is headed to the White House, amidst swirling currents of disinformation. He has threatened to jail political enemies and sue newspapers, further destabilizing a media environment that was already reeling. Online and off, we need to create and defend vital spaces of information exchange, and we need to strengthen the local governments and institutions that shape the public use of those spaces. The future of American democracy depends on it. Bigly.

And we cannot depend on tech companies to safeguard those information spaces. Sidewalk Labs wants to turn Link stations into nodes of intelligent infrastructure that may one day collect data on pedestrian traffic and garbage removal, direct drivers to parking spots, route autonomous vehicles through the streets, and push location-specific targeted advertising. The ideology of data solutionism has taken over city halls, planning departments, law enforcement agencies, and countless other domains of public life — a troubling trend when social technocrats were in charge, and now, with the rise of Trumpism, an alarming one.

In a recent talk, “Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud,” Matthew K. Gold discusses work in infrastructure studies that engages with “…concerns over issues of power, capital and surveillance; the physical and commercial structures through which the phenomenon we refer to as ‘the network’ is built; and the growing sense in which media and networked infrastructures have become constitutive of much of our experience in the world.” When we think about government information as a common good, infrastructure interfaces with political and social realities in ways that can help us surface important considerations about our work in collecting and preserving these materials.

My hope is that we can learn from and build upon discourse in disciplinary communities both near to and far from our day-to-day work. To circle back around to educational institutions, I teach a one-lesson module on government information for an undergraduate introductory course on library research. As part of the lecture, I share a brochure published by the War Relocation Authority in 1943, titled Relocating a People. The argument I present to students is that library collections of government documents help us ask difficult questions about our government with respect to human rights, society, justice, democracy, capitalism, and so on. In that spirit, I ask of all of us: how can we make sure that these questions can be asked now, and then asked again and again in years to come?

Selected resources

Barbara Fister, “When is the Library Open? How About Now?” Updated October 26, 2016.

—, “Get Ready to Fight for What Matters,” Updated November 20, 2016.

Bergis Jules, “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” Updated November 11, 2016.

Christopher Long, “Open Letter to the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University,” Updated November 12, 2016.

Ed Summers, “On Forgetting,” On Archivy, Updated November 18, 2014.

Erin Leach, “No firm ground, but we ain’t sliding,” Updated November 8, 2016.

Matthew K. Gold, “Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud,” Updated November 11, 2016.

“Open Letter to the UO Community from the Undersigned Library Staff, Faculty, and Administrators,” Updated November 15, 2016.

Paul Finkelman, “Three-Fifths Clause: Why Its Taint Persists,” The Root, Updated February 26, 2013.

Safiya U. Noble, “Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression,” Updated August 30, 2016.

Shannon Mattern, “Public In/Formation,” Places, Updated November 2016.

Shari Laster, “Government information and #critlib,” Updated July 21, 2015.

Sunlight Foundation, “The Trump questions: What will transparency and open government look like in the next White House?” Updated November 10, 2016.